Prince of the City

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Prince of the City
Prince Of The City folded.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySidney Lumet
Screenplay by
Based onPrince of the City
by Robert Daley
Produced byBurtt Harris
StarringTreat Williams
Jerry Orbach
Richard Foronjy
Lindsay Crouse
Bob Balaban
CinematographyAndrzej Bartkowiak
Edited byJack Fitzstephens
Music byPaul Chihara
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • August 21, 1981 (1981-08-21)
Running time
167 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$8.6 million
Box office$8 million[1]

Prince of the City is a 1981 American neo-noir crime drama film directed and co-written by Sidney Lumet.[2] The film follows Daniel Ciello, an officer of the New York Police Department who chooses, for idealistic reasons, to expose corruption in the force. Ciello, played by Treat Williams, was based on the NYPD narcotics detective Robert Leuci.[a]

The film's large supporting cast also features Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, and Lindsay Crouse. The screenplay, by Lumet and Jay Presson Allen, is based on Robert Daley's 1978 book of the same name, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.


Danny Ciello is a narcotics detective who works in the Special Investigative Unit (SIU) of the New York Police Department. He and his partners are called "Princes of the City" because they are largely unsupervised and are given wide latitude to make cases against defendants. They are involved in numerous illegal practices, such as skimming money from criminals, and supplying informants with drugs.

Danny has a drug-addict brother and a cousin in organized crime. After an incident in which Danny beats up a junkie to supply another junkie with heroin, his conscience begins to bother him. He is approached by internal affairs and federal prosecutors to participate in an investigation into police corruption. In exchange for potentially avoiding prosecution and gaining federal protection for himself and his family, Ciello wears a wire and goes undercover to expose the inner workings of illegal police activity and corruption. He agrees to cooperate as long as he does not have to turn in his partners, but his past misdeeds and criminal associates come back to haunt him.

One of his partners commits suicide during interrogation, and his cousin in the Mafia, who saves Danny's life on one occasion and warns him of a contract on his life on another, winds up dead. While confessing to three crimes he committed in the 11 years he worked for the SIU, Danny perjures himself by denying the many other offenses he and his partners have committed. Despite repeatedly professing loyalty, Danny finally gives up all of his partners, one of whom shoots himself as a result of this betrayal. Most of the others turn against him. In the end, the chief government prosecutor decides not to prosecute Danny, and he returns to work as an instructor at the Police Academy.[3]



When producer and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen read Robert Daley's book Prince of the City (1978), she was convinced it was an ideal Sidney Lumet project, but the film rights had been sold to Orion Pictures for writer-director Brian De Palma and screenwriter David Rabe. Allen let it be known that if that deal should fall through, then she wanted the deal for Lumet. Just as Lumet was about to sign for a different picture, they got the call that Prince of the City was theirs.

Allen hadn't wanted to write Prince of the City, just produce it. She was put off by the book's non-linear story structure, but Lumet wouldn't make the picture without her, and agreed to write the outline for her. Lumet and Allen went over the book and agreed on what they could use and what they could do without. To her horror, Lumet would come in every day for weeks and scribble on legal pads. She was terrified that she would have to tell him that his stuff was unusable, but to her delight the outline was wonderful and she went to work.[5] It was her first project with living subjects, and Allen interviewed nearly everyone in the book and had endless hours of Bob Leuci's tapes for back-up. With all her research and Lumet's outline, she eventually turned out a 365-page script in 10 days. It was nearly impossible to sell the studio on a three-hour picture, but by offering to slash the budget to $10 million they agreed. When asked if the original author ever has anything to say about how their book is treated, Allen replied: "Not if I can help it. You cannot open that can of worms. You sell your book, you go to the bank, you shut up."[6]

Orion Pictures had bought Daley's book for $500,000 in 1978.[7] Daley was a former New York Deputy Police Commissioner for Public Affairs who wrote about Robert Leuci, an NYPD detective whose testimony and secret tape recordings helped indict 52 members of the Special Investigation Unit and convict them of income tax evasion.[7] Originally, Brian De Palma was going to direct with David Rabe adapting the book[8] and Robert De Niro playing Leuci but the project fell through.[9] Sidney Lumet came aboard to direct under two conditions: He did not want a big name movie star playing Leuci because he did not "want to spend two reels getting over past associations,"[9] and the movie's running time would be at least three hours.[8]

Lumet cast Williams after spending three weeks talking to him and listening to the actor read the script and then reading it again with 50 other cast members.[10] In order to research the role, the actor spent a month learning about police work, hung out at 23rd Precinct in New York City, went on a drug bust, and lived with Leuci for some time.[11] By the time rehearsals started, Williams said "I was thinking like a cop."[11] Lumet felt guilty about the two-dimensional way he had treated cops in the 1973 film Serpico and said that Prince of the City was his way to rectify this depiction.[10] He and Jay Presson Allen wrote a 240-page script in 30 days.[8] The film was budgeted at $10 million, but the director was able to make it for under $8.6 million.[10]

Supposedly, Bruce Willis has a role as a background actor in this film, and Williams tipped him off about The Verdict, Lumet's next film.[12]


Orion opened the film in a select group of theaters to allow time for good reviews and word-of-mouth to build demand ahead of wider release.[7] It could not afford television advertising, and relied heavily on print ads, including an unusual three-page spread in the New York Times.[7]


Response from subjects[edit]

The film was considered sufficiently authentic by the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that he called Lumet for a copy of the movie to use for the DEA training. Some law-enforcement officials, however, criticized the film for glamorizing Leuci and other corrupt detectives while portraying most of the prosecutors who uncovered the crimes negatively.[13] John Guido, Chief of Inspectional Services, said, "The corrupt guys are the only good guys in the film."[13]

Nicholas Scoppetta, the Special Prosecutor who helped convince Leuci to go undercover against his fellow officers, said, "In the film, it seems to be the prosecutors who are disregarding the issue of where real justice lies and the prosecutors seem to be as bad or worse than the corrupt police."[13] In fact, only two of the five prosecutors the film focuses on were portrayed negatively. In particular, District Attorney Polito, played by James Tolkan, is shown as petty and vindictive. The character is based on Thomas Puccio, the assistant United States Attorney in charge of the Federal Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn, and Robert Daley agrees that he was treated unfairly in the screenplay.[citation needed]

One of the prosecutors who befriended the Ciello character and is shown in a very positive light was based on then rookie federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani. The character, Mario Vincente, played by Steve Inwood, is portrayed as threatening to resign if the U.S. Attorney's office indicts Ciello (Leuci) for past transgressions. In general, the prosecutors who argued against the prosecution of Leuci are treated sympathetically, while those who sought his indictment are shown as officious and vindictive.[citation needed]

Critical reception[edit]

Upon its release, Prince of the City garnered mixed reviews, some of which complained about its excessive length, or unfavorably compared Williams' performance to Pacino's in Serpico, Lumet's previous film about police corruption. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it "a very good movie and, like some of its characters, it wants to break your heart. Maybe it will."[14] Janet Maslin of The New York Times praised its "sharply detailed landscape" and states that its "brief characterizations are so keenly drawn that dozens of them stand out with the forcefulness of major performances." She concludes that it "begins with the strength and confidence of a great film, and ends merely as a good one. The achievement isn't what it first promises to be, but it's exciting and impressive all the same."[15]

The film was not commercially successful in theatres, earning only $8.1 million of its $8.6 million cost.[citation needed] Prince of the City holds a 92% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 24 reviews with an average rating of 7.5/10.[16] On Metacritic, it has a score of 81% based on reviews from 15 critics.[17]

Awards and nominations[edit]



  1. ^ Prince of the City at Box Office Mojo
  2. ^ Silver, Alain; Ward, Elizabeth; eds. (1992). Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (3rd ed.). Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press. ISBN 0-87951-479-5
  3. ^ Santos, Steven (15 August 2011). "DEEP FOCUS: Sidney Lumet's PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981)". IndieWire. Penske Business Media. Archived from the original on 9 January 2017. Retrieved April 4, 2018.
  4. ^ Thomson, David (2010-11-04). The New Biographical Dictionary of Film 5Th ed. ISBN 9780748108503.
  5. ^ McGilligan, Patrick (1986). Backstory : interviews with screenwriters of Hollywood's golden age. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05666-3. OCLC 12974850.
  6. ^ Crist, Judith (1984). Take 22 : Moviemakers on Moviemaking. Sealy, Shirley. New York, NY, USA: Viking. pp. 282–311. ISBN 0-670-49185-3. OCLC 10878065.
  7. ^ a b c d Harmetz, Aljean (July 18, 1981). "How Prince of the City is being "platformed"". The New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2018.
  8. ^ a b c Ansen, David (August 24, 1981). "New York's Finest". Newsweek.
  9. ^ a b Corry, John (August 9, 1981). "'Prince of the City' Explores a Cop's Anguish". The New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2018.
  10. ^ a b c Scott, Jay (August 19, 1981). "Director Sidney Lumet Fears for the Future of "Real" Films". The Globe and Mail.
  11. ^ a b Lawson, Carol (August 18, 1981). "Treat Williams: For the moment, Prince of the City". The New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2018.
  12. ^ Speed, F. Maurice; Cameron-Wilson, James (1988). "Film review. 1988-9 : including video releases". London: Columbus Books. p. 137. ISBN 9780862879396. OCLC 153629495. Retrieved September 14, 2017.
  13. ^ a b c Raab, Selwyn (August 30, 1981). "Movie criticized as glamorizing police corruption". New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2018.
  14. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Prince of the City". Ebert Digital LLC. Retrieved April 4, 2018.
  15. ^ Maslin, Janet (August 19, 1981). "Movie Review - LUMET'S 'PRINCE OF THE CITY'". The New York Times. Retrieved September 14, 2017.
  16. ^ "Prince of the City (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on 30 November 2004. Retrieved April 4, 2018.
  17. ^ "Prince of the City". Metacritic.

Other sources[edit]


  1. ^ After he quit the job, Leuci turned novelist and wrote the gritty police dramas Snitch, Odessa Beach and Captain Butterfly.

External links[edit]